The U.S. is Trusting Turkey to Battle Terrorism, But Here's Why That's a Huge Mistake

The U.S. and Turkey announced that they are building a fund together “to combat violent extremism by undercutting the ideological and recruiting appeal of jihadists in places like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.” They must be delusional not to put Turkey on this list as well. With chaos only a few miles away and inevitably loose border control, Syrian rebels are moving in and out of Turkey as they please. Most of these rebels are armed and belong to the jihadist terrorist group Jabhat Al-Nusra. In other words, peace, quiet, and fresh air isn't why they're going to Turkey.

One Turkish journalist called this process the Afghanization of Syria and Pakistanization of Turkey: “[Syria] is in the grips of Lebanonization (ethnic and sectarian polarization), Somalization (collapse of public order and state), and Afghanization (dominance of Al-Qaeda and jihadists), with all those processes intertwined and mutually exacerbating each other.” This means that Syria is becoming and more like Afghanistan as its civil war continues and jihadists, extremists, and terrorists come to dominate. As this Afghanization of Syria continues, Turkey’s southeast region continues to resemble Peshawar of Pakistan, a region where Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda members find a safe haven, and thus the region the U.S. is most concerned about when dealing with extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. Just like Afghan extremists in Peshawar, Syria’s jihadists come to Turkey to establish bases where they can recharge their batteries and draw logistical support for their cause.

The Turkish government has denied allegations that it is directly aiding Syrian rebel groups, but simply by failing to step up measures against them, Turkey is by default providing them opportunities to gain physical and logistical strength. According the Turkish newspaper Taraf, more than 500 Turks are estimated to be fighting in Syria alongside the rebels.

Al-Qaeda is not just an enemy of the U.S. or the West, but in fact has always been a threat to Turkey. The organization has repeated several times that Turkey is an enemy of Islam due to its secular and democratic system. Since the first attacks on Turkish soil in Istanbul in 2003, against two synagogues, the British consulate, and the HSBC bank, Al-Qaeda has consistently attempted to carry out attacks in Turkey. In 2010, with the beginning of the Syrian crisis, arrests of Al-Qaeda suspects have increased considerably in Turkey. The country has become a hub for Syrian terrorists, yet its citizens are still the target of this very same type of terrorism.

Therefore the rise of radicalism in southeast Turkey poses great national-security threats. There have already been many reported calls from Jabhat Al-Nusra members in Turkey for fellow brothers to join the jihad. Ankara knew from the beginning of the Syrian crisis that if the war continued, there would be a serious problem of radicalization among the Syrian opposition. And they were right. Jabhat al-Nusra at the moment is said to have 7-8,000 militants fighting in Syria, one-quarter of whom are foreign jihadists.

But the problem of terrorism goes beyond Al-Qaeda. A fair regime needs to be established in Syria, otherwise extremism will continue to get stronger. The essence of terrorism lies in jihadi ideology and radicalization. This is often triggered by poverty and lack of education, and is exacerbated iby direct military conflict. This is the biggest threat that is posed by the ongoing crisis in Syria: the radicalization of the people on the ground who are troubled by diminishing hopes for stability, and the increasingly appealing “rally around the ideology” syndrome. For many who have discovered the permanence of their insufferable status quo, ideology becomes the only thing to hold onto: it becomes their reason to fight and that becomes their reason to live.

Last Friday, as I wrote previously, the United States and Turkey announced a fund “to combat violent extremism by undercutting the ideological and recruiting appeal of jihadists in places like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan”. The fund, to which the U.S. is initially donating $2-3 million, is expected to reach $200 million in the next 10 years. Non-governmental organizations as well as governments can donate money for the fund, which will in turn support various programs to disrupt radicalization and combat terrorism at the core. The U.S. and Turkey would be the leaders of the fund, and they expect it to be operational by mid-2014.

This is a very important step that, if carried out correctly, could really make a difference. But as Syria's civil war continues, as people become fed up with hunger and poverty, and as basic education continues be a luxury for many, it will become that much more difficult to fight against terrorism anywhere. Turkey needs to end its own radicalization problem first, by shutting the borders that extremists cross. Syria needs to solve its own problem by creating change in the status quo. And the U.S. needs to acknowledge all of this before it goes ahead and spends $2 million on a fund that it lets Turkey be in charge of.

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Merve Tahiroglu

Merve Tahiroglu is a Duke University graduate with a degree in International Relations. She is currently interning at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She is from Istanbul, Turkey - born and raised.

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